While there’s endless excitement about digital innovation in the private sector, and the technological advances that stem from it, the public sector tends to be overlooked. Changes in how the government uses IT can have a big impact on end users but the systems only makes headlines when they go wrong. Why is that? Civil service work may not be very glamorous but digital innovation in this sector has the potential to revolutionise the way infrastructure is managed, with benefits for us all. What’s more, it could save billions of pounds per year in reduced bureaucracy, meaning more money can go into services themselves.
The transition to digital services
The process of transition is always challenging and there are several difficulties in the public sector that private companies don’t have to deal with, or that don’t affect them as intensely. For instance, in most kinds of business, it’s possible, if not desirable, to drop other activities for a day or two while new infrastructure is installed. Governments simply can’t do this because they’re responsible for critical work without which people could really suffer. They also face difficulties because they don’t have much central direction and control, and there tends to be a lot of competition between departments. This makes it difficult to amass the funds needed for major overhauls of infrastructure, especially when the gain from a more efficient system won’t necessarily go back to the department whose job it is to put up most of the money. Add to this a complex set of obligations that make it harder to get things up and running quickly, and people who want to push through projects like this have to work twice as hard as they do in the private sector. Nevertheless, such projects are happening.
The benefits of going digital
Ultimately, the most important currency in government is data – it’s needed at every level, and the more efficiently it can move around, the faster departments can act. Having access to big data also makes it possible to design policies that better fit the needs of the public. Being able to collect data electronically, ideally direct from the end user, cuts down on a great deal of legwork and thereby saves money. What’s more, a well-connected government can more easily take feedback from the public, making people feel they are listened to, thereby making them more likely to engage in a positive way.
The downside of digital services
Going digital means everybody has to work out how to connect with online services, which is difficult for a number of reasons. Some individuals simply can’t afford the equipment or can’t afford to pay for services, and public libraries intended to help them need funding if they are to provide adequate services. Other people have disabilities that make using the internet difficult or impossible (although online access to services is, overall, a big help to disabled people), so systems need to have alternatives in place to help those who would otherwise lose access to services altogether. Additionally, there are concerns around data protection and security more generally, especially where vulnerable individuals are concerned, and ongoing work needs to be done to address these.
Long-term improvements to the system
When considering the downside of going digital, you should always keep in mind the downside of doing things the old fashioned way. An increase in the data government needs to deal with is inevitable and many parts of the current system are strained almost to breaking point. Although the process of transition can be bumpy, in the long term the advantages of a streamlined digital system are immense. Digital public services are the only viable long-term option and once problems have been ironed out, they could put us in a much better situation than the one we’re in now.
Innovation and the exchange of ideas
So, what does it take to make things work? Change like this involves a cultural as well as a technological shift, and processes of cultural change always go more smoothly when many different voices can be heard. That’s why areas like Govnet have been opened up as platforms for conversation and the exchange of ideas, helping us all to contribute to making the digital public service revolution work well and work for everyone.
Can it happen? The experience of countries like Denmark and Estonia suggests that yes, it can. The UK is part way along a difficult road, but if we all contribute our ideas, we can make the journey go more smoothly.